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|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.32(d)|
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By John le Carre
Little, BrownCopyright © 2004 David Cornwell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneON THE DAY his destiny returned to claim him, Ted Mundy was sporting a bowler hat and balancing on a soapbox in one of Mad King Ludwig's castles in Bavaria. It wasn't a classic bowler, more your Laurel and Hardy than Savile Row. It wasn't an English hat, despite the Union Jack blazoned in Oriental silk on the handkerchief pocket of his elderly tweed jacket. The maker's grease-stained label on the inside of the crown proclaimed it to be the work of Messrs. Steinmatzky & Sons, of Vienna.
And since it wasn't his own hat - as he hastened to explain to any luckless stranger, preferably female, who fell victim to his boundless accessibility - neither was it a piece of self-castigation. "It's a hat of office, madam," he would insist, garrulously begging her pardon in a set piece he had off perfectly. "A gem of history, briefly entrusted to me by generations of previous incumbents of my post - wandering scholars, poets, dreamers, men of the cloth - and every man jack of us a loyal servant of the late King Ludwig - hah!" The hah! perhaps being some kind of involuntary throwback to his military childhood. "Well, what's the alternative, I mean to say? You can hardly ask a thoroughbred Englishman to tote an umbrella like the Japanese guides, can you? Not here in Bavaria, my goodness, no. Not fifty miles from where our own dear Neville Chamberlain made his pact with the devil. Well, can you, madam?"
And if his audience, as is often the case, turns out to be too pretty to have heard of Neville Chamberlain or know which devil is referred to, then in a rush of generosity the thoroughbred Englishman will supply his beginners' version of the shameful Munich Agreement of 1938, in which he does not shy from remarking how even our beloved British monarchy, not to mention our aristocracy and the Tory Party here on earth, favored practically any accommodation with Hitler rather than a war.
"British establishment absolutely terrified of Bolshevism, you see," he blurts, in the elaborate telegramese that, like hah!, overcomes him when he is in full cry. "Powers-that-be in America no different. All any of 'em ever wanted was to turn Hitler loose on the Red Peril." And how in German eyes, therefore, Neville Chamberlain's rolled-up umbrella remains to this very day, madam, the shameful emblem of British appeasement of Our Dear Führer, his invariable name for Adolf Hitler. "I mean frankly, in this country, as an Englishman, I'd rather stand in the rain without one. Still, that's not what you came here for, is it? You came to see Mad Ludwig's favorite castle, not listen to an old bore ranting on about Neville Chamberlain. What? What? Been a pleasure, madam" - doffing the clown's bowler in self-parody and revealing an anarchic forelock of salt-and-pepper hair that bounces out of its trap like a greyhound the moment it's released - "Ted Mundy, jester to the Court of Ludwig, at your service."
And who do they think they've met, these punters - or Billies, as the British tour operators prefer to call them - if they think at all? Who is this Ted Mundy to them as a fleeting memory? A bit of a comedian, obviously. A failure at something - a professional English bloody fool in a bowler and a Union Jack, all things to all men and nothing to himself, fifty in the shade, nice enough chap, wouldn't necessarily trust him with my daughter. And those vertical wrinkles above the eyebrows like fine slashes of a scalpel, could be anger, could be nightmares: Ted Mundy, tour guide.
It's three minutes short of five o'clock in the evening, late May, and the last tour of the day is about to begin. The air is turning chilly, a red spring sun is sinking in the young beech trees. Ted Mundy perches like a giant grasshopper on the balcony, knees up, bowler tipped against the dying rays. He is poring over a rumpled copy of the Süddeutsche Zeitung that he keeps rolled up like a dog-chew in an inner pocket of his jacket for these moments of respite between tours. The Iraqi war officially ended little more than a month ago. Mundy, its unabashed opponent, scrutinizes the lesser headlines: Prime Minister Tony Blair will travel to Kuwait to express his thanks to the Kuwaiti people for their cooperation in the successful conflict.
"Humph," says Mundy aloud, brows furrowed. During his tour, Mr. Blair will make a brief stopover in Iraq. The emphasis will be on reconstruction rather than triumphalism.
"I should bloody well hope so," Mundy growls, his glower intensifying.
Mr. Blair has no doubt whatever that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction will shortly be found. U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, on the other hand, speculates that the Iraqis may have destroyed them before the war began. "Why don't you make up your stupid minds then?" Mundy harrumphs.
His day thus far has followed its usual complex and unlikely course. Prompt at six he rises from the bed he shares with his young Turkish partner, Zara. Tiptoeing across the corridor he wakes her eleven-year-old son, Mustafa, in time for him to wash and clean his teeth, say his morning prayers, eat the breakfast of bread, olives, tea and chocolate spread that Mundy has meantime prepared for him. All this is done in an atmosphere of great stealth. Zara works late shift in a kebab cafe close to Munich's main railway station, and must not on any account be woken. Since starting her night job she has been arriving home around three in the morning, in the care of a friendly Kurdish taxi driver who lives in the same block. Muslim ritual should then permit her to say a quick prayer before sunrise and enjoy eight hours of good sleep, which is what she needs. But Mustafa's day begins at seven, and he too must pray. It took all Mundy's powers of persuasion, and Mustafa's also, to convince Zara that Mundy could preside over her son's devotions, and she could get her hours in. Mustafa is a quiet, catlike child, with a cap of black hair, scared brown eyes and a raucous boing-boing voice.
From the apartment block - a shabby box of weeping concrete and external wiring - man and boy pick their way across wasteland to a bus shelter covered in graffiti, much of it abusive. The block is what these days is called an ethnic village: Kurds, Yemenis and Turks live packed together in it. Other children are already assembled here, some with mothers or fathers. It would be reasonable for Mundy to consign Mustafa to their care, but he prefers to ride with him to the school and shake his hand at the gates, sometimes formally kissing him on both cheeks. In the twilight time before Mundy appeared in his life, Mustafa suffered humiliation and fear. He needs rebuilding.
Returning from school to the apartment takes twenty minutes of Mundy's huge strides, and he arrives with one half of him hoping Zara is still asleep and the other half that she is just awake, in which case she will make at first drowsy, then increasingly passionate love with him before he leaps into his elderly Volkswagen Beetle and joins the southbound traffic for the seventy-minute drive to the Linderhof and work.
The journey is irksome but necessary. A year ago, all three members of the family were separately in despair. Today they are a fighting force bent upon improving their collective lives. The story of how this miracle came about is one that Mundy recounts to himself whenever the traffic threatens to drive him mad:
He is on his uppers. Again. He is practically on the run.
Egon, his business partner and coprincipal of their struggling Academy of Professional English, has fled with the last of the assets. Mundy himself has been obliged to creep out of Heidelberg at dead of night with whatever he can cram into the Volkswagen, plus 704 euros of petty cash that Egon has carelessly left unstolen in the safe.
Arriving in Munich with the dawn, he leaves the Volkswagen with its Heidelberg registration in a discreet corner of a parking garage in case his creditors have served an order on it. Then he does what he always does when life is closing in on him: he walks.
And because all his life, for reasons far back in his childhood, he has had a natural leaning towards ethnic diversity, his feet lead him almost of their own accord to a street full of Turkish shops and cafes that are just beginning to wake up.
The day is sunny, he is hungry, he selects a cafe at random, lowers his long body cautiously onto a plastic chair that refuses to sit still on the uneven pavement, and asks the waiter for a large medium-sweet Turkish coffee and two poppyseed rolls with butter and jam. He has barely begun his breakfast when a young woman settles on the chair beside him and with her hand held half across her mouth asks him, in a faltering Turkish-Bavarian accent, whether he would like to go to bed with her for money.
Zara is in her late twenties and improbably, inconsolably beautiful. She wears a thin blue blouse and black brassière, and a black skirt skimpy enough to display her bare thighs. She is dangerously slim. Mundy wrongly assumes drugs. It is also to his later shame that, for longer than he cares to admit, he is half inclined to take her up on her offer. He is sleepless, jobless, womanless and near enough penniless.
But when he takes a closer look at the young woman he is proposing to sleep with, he is conscious of such desperation in her stare and such intelligence behind her eyes, and such a lack of confidence on her part, that he quickly takes a hold of himself, and instead offers her breakfast, which she warily accepts on condition she may take half of it home to her sick mother. Mundy, now hugely grateful to be in contact with a fellow human being in low water, has a better suggestion: she shall eat all the breakfast, and they will together buy food for her mother at one of the halal shops up and down the road. She hears him without expression, eyes downcast. Desperately empathizing with her, Mundy suspects she is asking herself whether he is just crazy or seriously weird. He strains to appear neither of these things to her, but patently fails. In a gesture that goes straight to his heart, she draws her food with both hands to her own side of the table in case he means to take it back.
In doing so, she reveals her mouth. Her four front teeth are sheared off at the root. While she eats, he scans the street for a pimp. She doesn't seem to have one. Perhaps the cafe owns her. He doesn't know, but his instincts are already protective.
As they rise to leave, it becomes apparent to Zara that her head barely reaches up to Mundy's shoulder, for she starts away from him in alarm. He adopts his tall man's stoop, but she keeps her distance from him. She is by now his sole concern in life. His problems are negligible by comparison with hers. In the halal shop, under his urgent entreaty, she buys a piece of lamb, apple tea, couscous, fruit, honey, vegetables, halva and a giant triangular bar of Toblerone chocolate on sale.
"How many mothers have you got, actually?" he asks her cheerfully, but it's not a joke she shares.
Shopping, she remains tense and tight-lipped, haggling in Turkish from behind her hand, then stabbing her finger at the fruit - not this one, that one. The speed and skill with which she calculates impress him deeply. He may be many kinds of man, but he is no sort of negotiator. When he tries to carry the shopping bags - there are two by now, both weighty - she fights them from him in fierce tugs.
"You want sleep with me?" she asks again impatiently, when she has them safely in her hands. Her message is clear: you've paid for me, so take me and leave me alone.
"No," he replies.
"What you want?"
"To see you safely home."
She shakes her head vigorously. "Not home. Hotel." He tries to explain that his purposes are friendly rather than sexual but she is too tired to listen to him and begins weeping without changing her facial expression.
He chooses another cafe and they sit down. Her tears keep rolling but she ignores them. He presses her to talk about herself and she does so without any particular interest in her subject. She seems to have no barriers left. She is a country girl from the plains of Adana, the eldest daughter of a farming family, she tells him in her faltering Bavarian argot while she stares at the table. Her father promised her in marriage to the son of a neighboring farmer. The boy was held up as a computer genius, earning good money in Germany.
When he came home to visit the family in Adana, there was a traditional wedding feast, the two farms were declared to be joined, and Zara returned to Munich with her husband, only to discover he was not a computer genius at all, but a fulltime, round-the-clock armed bandit. He was twenty-four, she was seventeen and expecting a child by him.
"It was gang," she declares simply. "All boys were bad crooks. They are crazy. Steal cars, sell drugs, make nightclubs, control prostitutes. They do all bad things. Now he is in prison. If he would not be in prison, my brothers will kill him."
Her husband had been sent to prison nine months ago, but had found time to terrify the wits out of his son and smash his wife's face in before he went. A seven-year sentence, other charges pending. One of the gang turned police witness. Her story continues in a monotonous flow as they walk through the town, now in German, now in snatches of Turkish when her German fails her. Sometimes he wonders whether she knows he is still beside her. Mustafa, she says, when he asks the boy's name. She has asked him nothing about himself. She is carrying the shopping bags and he makes no further attempt to carry them for her. She is wearing blue beads, and he remembers from somewhere far back in his life that for superstitious Muslims blue beads ward off the evil eye. She is sniffing but the tears are no longer rolling down her cheeks. He guesses she has made herself cheer up before meeting someone who mustn't know she has been crying. They are in Munich's Westend, which hardly accords with its elegant London equivalent: drab, prewar apartment houses in old grays and browns; washing hanging out to dry in the windows, kids playing on a patch of molting grass. A boy sees their approach, breaks free of his friends, picks up a rock and advances on them menacingly. Zara calls to him in Turkish.
"What do you want?" the boy yells.
"A piece of your Toblerone, please, Mustafa," Mundy says. The boy stares at him, talks again to his mother, then edges forward, keeping the rock in his right hand while he pokes in the bags with his left. Like his mother, he is gaunt, with shadowed eyes. Like his mother, he seems to have no emotions left.
"And a cup of apple tea," Mundy adds. "With you and all your friends."
Led by Mustafa, who is by now carrying the bags, and escorted by three stalwart dark-eyed boys, Mundy follows Zara up three flights of grimy stone stairs.
Excerpted from Absolute Friends by John le Carre Copyright © 2004 by David Cornwell. Excerpted by permission.
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